In the late 1990s, Hirofumi Leung and Song Kim were unemployed UF graduates when they decided to open a temporary, small sushi restaurant.
But business picked up quickly and the college friends found themselves moving Dragonfly Sushi and Sake Company into a larger downtown location.
“We realized after four or five years that this was actually going to be our career,” Leung said. “When we started off at 30 employees, most of them were full time students. We decided to grow them internally and give them an opportunity to become general managers at our restaurants.”
Sister restaurant Rolls ‘n Bowls opened soon after, followed by a second Dragonfly location on Sand Lake Road (known as Restaurant Row) in Orlando. The restaurants have operated to both financial and critical success.
Although Leung and Kim were excited about buying food from local farms, insurance and liability requirements were tough to navigate on both sides. They came up with a compromise using food distributor Sysco.
“The small farmers don’t have to buy as much insurance,” said Leung. “Sysco handles all the logistics and makes sure that everything is compliant and FDA safe. Then they supply us with the local produce.”
The restaurants also get local seafood whenever possible, such as Florida grouper and Cedar Key clams, for use in their Japanese dishes.
For Leung, being conscious of the local economy also means environmental sustainability. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Japan, Leung was exposed at an early age to a culture that avoided waste. Growing up poor, his parents reused to-go containers and opted for hanging laundry to dry.
“Today’s version of that is being sustainable,” said Leung. “At an early age we were taught those principles. When we started our business, we didn’t look for certification; it was just the way to do business.”
The restaurants participate in recycling programs, watch energy use and avoid excessive chemicals in cleaning products and other supplies.
Dragonfly works with Blue Oven Kitchens, a group that promotes local foodways and sustainable growth, while Rolls ‘n Bowls is a member of the Green Restaurant Association. Leung says much of this can be credited to his staff members, who he says are passionate about keeping things local.
Leung continues his outreach to area workers as a member of the BAC. The company also hires interns from both UF and Santa Fe College to work in the restaurants as well as in their Gainesville corporate office.
Often restaurant groups begin in larger areas and then come to Gainesville, but Leung has done it the other way around through local purchasing and recruiting, sustainability and listening to his staff.
“I’m proud to say that we came out of Gainesville,” said Leung. “All of my top management team at one point came to school here. If you can empower your staff to make these decisions and get engaged and happy about it, it’s a miracle how far they’ll take it.”